Possibly because of online birding sites and sighting maps, the last few times I found snowy owls, many others had as well and the scene was a comically static porcupine of long lenses trained on a stubbornly pensive bird squatting somewhere on a patch of sand.
Not this time around. I was still basing my search area on previously reported sightings, but I also knew the spot from previous years and had decided to chance it despite a grey day and dull light. It appears everyone else had stayed in bed that morning and I had an immensity of Long Island waterfront and dunes all to myself.
Having walked maybe a mile, I spotted the first owl far in the distance, pale speck of white standing at attention on the beach. It watched me approach and for a while, we gauged one another. Having reached the reasonable distance I would normally stop at if other photographers were around out of respect, I decided to creep in closer, very slowly, very still, lens up, at the ready.
The owl let me get actually closer than I expected. From some fifty feet away, the continuous humming of my high-speed shutter made me smile inwardly at all the perfectly identical shots I was getting, then I decided to sit down and share some time with the fluffy bird of prey.
It appears that was a competing move not to be tolerated; the transient voyeur I had been was one thing, but sitting is owning and on that carefully chosen patch, there could only be one.
The bird took off and flew low, landing just far enough to signal that safety metrics had been reset, a stone’s throw away. For the next hour or so, I followed a surprisingly active owl and eventually discovered a second one. I am not very knowledgeable of snowy owls but assume they must have been a pair as they were sometimes trading spots. They flew around me mostly, never going far as I expect they could have on the empty beach, had my presence bothered them.
And still not a soul around. It was a rare treat. When eventually I paid my respects and walked back along the ocean, a pale late sun poked low through the clouds, tempting me to turn around and capture brighter images. But I doubted I would be able to top what I had. “It’s in the can”, I said to myself, and kept going.
Then I drove back to the city.